Saturday, 20 July 2013

1,001 Films: "Juliet of the Spirits/Giulietta degli Spiriti" (1965)

Sounds funny to voice it, but there is an argument to be made that the 145-minute fantasia Juliet of the Spirits - coming hot on the heels of the 138-minute 8 1/2, and the 180-minute La Dolce Vita - marked the last point before Fellini spiralled off into absolute self-indulgence, and began sticking his own name before (and in) the titles (Fellini's Roma, Fellini's Casanova) of films in which he was chiefly dramatising his more perverse and wayward desires. This one's Giulietta in Wonderland, essentially: a psychedelic fairytale constructed around the director's wife and muse Giulietta Masina, much as those earlier works were organised (if that's the right word) around Marcello Mastroianni. 

While her blithe, possibly philandering hubby goes off to the office for days and weeks, the bored Giulietta shuffles out into the world on a quest for personal fulfilment, and quickly finds herself surrounded by the kind of kooks, cranks and grotesques audiences were by this point expecting to find in a Fellini movie. The first wave of these - including, forsooth, a medium - shows up around the five-minute mark, and thereafter the leading actress is all but carried away on a torrential stream of consciousness that sometimes resembles Fellini doing a Scary Movie on the cinema around him: there are images lifted directly from Lola Montès and The Seventh Seal, vast Technicolor sets to rival anything in the Jerry Lewis canon, and an attempt to get at the heroine's troubled psychology that feels very much like a riff on Marnie. Most crucially of all, perhaps, it comes to regard a failing marriage as an occasion for a party, rather than, as Antonioni saw it, cause for a wake or post-mortem.

Fellini compensates for the near-total absence of plot development with staggering, striking or simply funny set-pieces (the school play halted by parental intervention, a trip to a treehouse stuffed with silly hats) and by hanging it all around the dainty shoulders of Masina, a performer who - simply by presenting her face to the camera - could carry an audience anywhere. The fact the flashbacks reveal the extent to which Giulietta and her predecessors were under the yoke of the men in their lives marks the film out as second only to Nights of Cabiria as the most properly feminist work in this eternally lusting and fantasising director's filmography: you could see the heroine as a continental sister to all those bored Californian housewives in the American movies of the 1960s and 70s, reaching out for New Agey curatives and longing for liberation of a kind. It really is spirited - more happening than film - and its suggestion we should throw the doors open and let life flood in whenever we hit troubled waters in love leads me to believe it comprises one of the all-time great post-breakup movies.

Juliet of the Spirits is available on DVD through Nouveaux.

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